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From the International desk: a Canadian perspective on undergraduate research.

This article will describe one university's approach to provide inquiry-learning opportunities to first-year students.

Defining the Scope of Undergraduate Research

Boyer's (1990) model of scholarship has been fairly widely adopted in Canada. As most readers are aware, Boyer identified four types of scholarship: 1) discovery, which is defined as developing new knowledge through traditional research; 2) integration, which involves the transfer of knowledge across the disciplines; 3) application, which serves to aid society and professions in addressing problems; and 4) teaching, which involves the study of teaching models and practices to achieve optimal learning. Undergraduate research experiences exist across and within this broad spectrum of scholarship.

In many disciplines within Canada and abroad, the scholarship of discovery is given greater emphasis than other areas of scholarship, although the scholarship of teaching is emerging as an area of focus for some members of the academic community. Students, however, may engage in all four types of scholarship. For example, a student may engage in preparation of an undergraduate thesis that builds on knowledge within a discipline, thus fitting within Boyer's scholarship of discovery. An example that would align with Boyer's definition of the scholarship of application would be a student participating in an experiential-learning opportunity with a volunteer organization developing a tutoring program for at-risk students. A student who examines the effectiveness of problem-based learning within his or her own discipline would be engaging in the scholarship of teaching. A group thesis that involves students from a variety of disciplines integrating their knowledge and applying it to a social issue would reflect the scholarship of integration.

Undergraduate research can be understood within Boyer's model of scholarship--as well as within the undergraduate research-and-inquiry model proposed by Healey (2005) and adapted by Healey and Jenkins (2009)--as a framework for categorizing and interpreting undergraduates' experiences with research and inquiry. Healey and McMaster University

Jenkin's (2009) work identifies two continuums, the first being the level of student involvement, both as audience members and as active participants. The second continuum extends from a focus on the content of the research to a focus on the processes and problems inherent within research. These two continuums are perpendicular to one another (Figure 1), allowing for the emergence of four zones: 1) research-led with an emphasis on research content and with students as audience; 2) research-tutored with an emphasis on research content and with students as participants; 3) research-oriented with an emphasis on research processes and problems with students as an audience; and 4) research-based with an emphasis on research processes and problems with students as participants.

In the following section, a snapshot of Canadian undergraduate research will help to develop this context, as each type of opportunity will be considered in light of Boyer's (1990) work on the forms of scholarship and Healey and Jenkin's (2009) model of undergraduate research and inquiry.

Canadian Context

Much of what is known about undergraduate research in Canada is anecdotal, unstandardized, and uneven. Published or other readily accessible information and evidence is relatively scarce. Part of the reason for this lack of national-level data is that education is under provincial jurisdiction, and therefore, the responsibility of the 10 provinces and three territories. Canada, as a federal state, is different than its nearest neighbor, the United States, because it does not have a federal office or department of education. Canada does have a Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), an intergovernmental body founded in 1967 by provincial ministers of education, with the stated goals of providing a forum for discussion of policy issues; mechanisms to undertake activities in areas of mutual interest; a means through which collaboration between education organizations and the federal government can occur; and a group to represent the interests of provinces and territories on the international stage (CMEC 2010).


Given the lack of federal jurisdiction over education in Canada, there is no single standard or stated objective for undergraduate research, leading to wide provincial and institutional variation in the opportunities available for undergraduate research.

A National Opportunity

A flagship Canadian program, the Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA), is federally funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The awards are intended to stimulate student interest in research in the natural sciences and engineering, while encouraging high-performing undergraduates to undertake graduate studies and/or pursue a research career in these fields (NSERC 2010a). These awards, valued at a minimum of $4,500 + 25 percent contributed by the host institution, provide students in science and engineering fields the opportunity to work with NSERC-funded faculty on research projects for 16 weeks, normally during the summer terms (May-August). Many students are hired to work on part of a larger NSERC-funded project, although some students do work on an independent piece of research.

In addition to these university-based awards, NSERC also funds Industrial Undergraduate Student Research Awards. These support a partnering organization in hiring an undergraduate to undertake research for 12 to 16 weeks on a project of importance to the organization (NSERC 2010b).

The corresponding federal grant-making agency, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), does not fund research awards for undergraduates. Some institutions, however, have created awards similar to the NSERC awards in both status and funding level. For example, McMaster University, with an undergraduate student population of nearly 24,000 (85 percent full-time), had 114 NSERC award winners in 2009-2010 and provided institutional awards to 10 students in the humanities, 12 in the social sciences, and four in the arts and science program. These small numbers clearly illustrate the level of prestige associated with these awards, acknowledging that only a select group of students experience this research opportunity (< 1% of the student population). It remains true that, proportionately, more students in science and engineering have the opportunity to apply for federally supported grants than students in other faculties.

In order to translate these experiences more broadly, a number of initiatives have been instituted across Canada to call attention to undergraduate research. For example, several universities hold an annual USRA poster session in a highly visible location on campus to celebrate and share this student research work. At the University of British Columbia, the Rising Stars of Research Annual Conference has been held each year since 2007 and takes a cross-disciplinary approach, focusing exclusively on research conducted by undergraduates (UBC 2010). These research opportunities at a national level provide a very deep and meaningful experience for the students involved, but they impact a very elite group of students. Additional opportunities that impact a great number of students need to be explored.

The majority of Canadian undergraduates complete four-year honor's degrees that often include a thesis as part of their final year of study. The thesis, which runs to 10,000 words, is typically based on an independent research project, overseen by a faculty supervisor. In some institutions, in part due to enrollment growth and in part due to an emphasis on group work, there is movement towards a group thesis, usually of somewhat greater magnitude both in length and depth of project. The thesis is a capstone experience (Boyer 1990) and for many students is a transformative learning opportunity that occurs late in their undergraduate experience.

Using Healey and Jenkin's (2009) concepts of research and inquiry, the thesis tends to focus on the student as a participant in the research, with an emphasis on the research process and resolution of a research problem. As part of the preparation for the thesis, the student will have engaged in extensive background work, either through independent review of the literature or through prior coursework. This background work tends to be research-led or research-tutored. In this way, the thesis experience moves the student through the four quadrants identified in Healey and Jenkin's (2009) work.

Undergraduate research awards, publishing opportunities, and conference participation tend to focus on Boyer's scholarship of discovery and Healey and Jenkin's (2009) research-based approach with students as participants and an emphasis on the research process and problem. These experiences are deep learning opportunities for students, with students engaged as active participants, focusing on the skills and the processes of research. Although these are high-quality learning opportunities for students, there are two notable disadvantages. First, they tend to impact elite students who are already more likely to continue on to graduate school, where they will be exposed to research in a deep and meaningful way. Second, these opportunities and undergraduate thesis opportunities tend to target seniors and thus do not impact students in earlier stages of their undergraduate programs (e.g., first- or second-year students).

Greater numbers of students are exposed to research through a variety of other experiential education programs, including formal co-operative education (e.g., at the University of Waterloo); internship opportunities offered at nearly all institutions (e.g., in Experiential Education for Social Sciences students at McMaster University); and work experience (e.g., the Work Study Program offered by the Ontario government). These research experiences can occur across the entire breadth of Boyer's areas of scholarship and Healey and Jenkin's framework of undergraduate research and inquiry and may impact more than 50% of the student population.

Turner et al. (2008) examined students' awareness of research at two institutions within the United Kingdom and one within Canada. They determined that Canadian students were much more aware than their UK counterparts that faculty (i.e., staff in the UK) were undertaking funded research (77 percent of the students surveyed in Canada were aware of this versus an average of 38 percent of students surveyed in the UK). This awareness, however, did not necessarily translate into a positive perception of research by the Canadian students since significantly more of these students complained about faculty members' inability to explain material, lack of interest in the academic welfare of their students, and faculty research interests distorting what they teach (Turner 2008). It must be recognized that this data represents information from only three institutions and is a snapshot in time; it does not necessarily represent national differences, but it does allow one to ask interesting questions about different levels of appreciation of the research process. This work demonstrates that simple awareness of faculty's research activities does not necessarily translate in to a positive mindset about research. This leads to the question does participation in research result in positive learning outcomes?

Russell and colleagues (2007) found that 68 percent of students reported that an opportunity to conduct undergraduate research increased their interest in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In a U.S. study, Lopatto (2004) examined the experiences of 1,135 undergraduates and determined that a research experience enhanced the students' undergraduate experience both in terms of general satisfaction, and in terms of learning gains on 20 specific items. If the premise that research increases student engagement and student learning is both recognized and accepted, how can more students be exposed to the research experience? The following discusses one institution's attempts to address this question through the introduction of inquiry learning.

Defining Inquiry

Inquiry is both a process and a set of skills. The inquiry process is about exploring, discovering, and, ultimately, reaching a higher level of understanding. This process has several steps, including actively identifying a topic or issue; generating a researchable question; investigating the problem by undertaking relevant research; critically thinking about the issue; answering the question(s); drawing conclusions; and reflecting on the inquiry process. Ultimately, inquiry is a form of research. It promotes student-directed learning and helps students to develop the skills necessary to acquire and reflect on new knowledge and understanding. Lee and others (2004) suggest that "inquiry-guided learning refers to a range of strategies used to promote learning through students' active, and increasingly independent, investigation of questions, problems, and issues--for which there often is no single answer. A range of teaching strategies is consistent with inquiry-guided learning, including interactive lecture, discussion, problem-based learning, case studies, simulations, and independent study."

Inquiry as a Form of Research: A Case Study from McMaster University

Inquiry is an innovative, award-winning teaching development at McMaster University, as evidenced by the Alan Blizzard Award--a national teaching award won by the original team of instructors in a first-year inquiry course taught by social science faculty at McMaster (Justice et al. 2002). Inquiry provides an opportunity for undergraduates to work in an inclusive, team environment to enhance their critical thinking skills and to develop the attitudes and approaches necessary for lifelong learning. In an inquiry course students develop a research question; gather evidence necessary to answer the question (at the first-year level this often involves an extensive literature search); critically assess the evidence; communicate a response to the original question; and critically reflect on the learning process.

Inquiry-based learning was first formally used as a pedagogical approach at McMaster in the Arts and Science program in the early 1980s (Jenkins 2007). The pedagogical approach is extensively used at McMaster University in the Bachelor of Health Sciences from first year through final year. During the 1998-99 academic year, the Faculties of Social Sciences, Science, and Humanities at McMaster introduced small, stand-alone inquiry courses for first-year students. Instructors on each faculty worked as a team to deliver the course; each small class was facilitated by one faculty member.

The broad, process-based, learning-outcomes goals for these courses are to enhance ability and proclivity to learn deeply, think critically, take active control of learning, be precise, accurate and clear in communicating, learn in a participatory fashion and be open and enjoy the pursuit of understanding (Justice et al. 2002). Thus inquiry learning as a pedagogical approach provides students the opportunity to develop critical research skills and the opportunity to engage in actual research. Spronken-Smith and Walker (2010) have demonstrated that if faculty members (staff in the UK) adopt an open, discovery-oriented, inquiry-learning approach, including having the student develop a research question and complete the entire inquiry cycle, they will strengthen the ties between teaching and research.

Utilizing an earlier framework by Pettigrew (1985) on contextualist research that links theory and practice, Justice et al. (2007) demonstrated that inquiry learning is associated with statistically significant, positive differences in the rate of students' earning passing grades, achieving honors standing, achieving and staying on the dean's honor list, and remaining in the university. Research has demonstrated that the positive learning outcomes of this inquiry experience include: the development of critical thinking skills; the ability to undertake independent inquiry; and the ability to become responsible for one's own learning, intellectual growth, and maturity (Kuhn et al. 2000, Kinkead 2003, Kirschner et al. 2006). Skills developed in inquiry learning prepare students to become both researchers and lifelong learners (Justice et al. 2006). These first-year inquiry experiences exemplify students engaged in the process of research as active participants, as Healey and Jenkins frame it in the upper-right quadrant in Figure 1.

In a recent study that I and associates conducted, building on the work of Justice et al. (2006 & 2007), we examined the extent to which inquiry learning had filtered throughout the Social Sciences curriculum at McMaster by examining 545 course outlines. We found that the amount of inquiry varies greatly by student level, department, and class size. All departments within Social Sciences exhibited some level of inquiry learning, with the greatest amounts in the departments of Social Work, Labor Studies, and Political Science. In comparison, Gerontology, Anthropology and Geography exhibited the least amount of inquiry learning. In general, such learning was more prevalent in small, upper-level courses, although there were examples of large classes (>200 students) of first and second year students (i.e., freshmen and sophomores) being taught using an inquiry approach.

Although the positive outcomes of inquiry learning are widely accepted, only the Social Sciences Faculty from among the original three Faculties involved at McMaster (i.e., Humanities, Science, and Social Sciences) continue to operate small, first-year courses in inquiry. There appears to be no single reason for the demise of inquiry learning in the other Faculties, but there are a number of contributing factors, as described by Justice et al. (2009). For example, tension exists regarding whether inquiry should be a stand-alone course or a pedagogical approach integrated across a curriculum. This tension leads to varying levels of support by disciplines for a stand-alone course.

Although inquiry learning has been practiced at McMaster for more than 25 years, there is modest understanding within the university about what is meant by inquiry as a pedagogical approach (Justice et al. 2009; Vajoczki et al., forthcoming). Teaching large numbers of inquiry classes requires a large number of inquiry instructors. Justice et al. (2009) found that some faculty members resisted teaching inquiry because they saw the approach as a threat to their role and responsibilities. Sometimes instructors perceived inquiry teaching as additional work or as a threat to their performance reviews. Justice et al. 2009 report that the effectiveness ratings of inquiry instructors typically dropped during the first two or three years they taught using this pedagogical approach. Finally, Justice et al. (2009) report that structural barriers, including Faculties' departmental funding structures, placed additional financial barriers on the success of inquiry in a climate already impacted by budget shortfalls.

Ultimately, although the data show that inquiry is an effective pedagogical approach based on learning outcomes, long-term sustainability is complicated. There are a number of questions that remain to be answered, including whether a stand-alone, entry-level inquiry course should be replaced with inquiry integrated into disciplinary courses now that sufficient instructors have developed their skills in this pedagogical approach.

This case study at McMaster demonstrates that inquiry learning is a pedagogical approach that can permit a wide number of undergraduate students, at an early point in their undergraduate careers, exposure to a student-centered, research-based experience according to the model proposed by Healey & Jenkins (2009). The case study also aligns with Australian (Brew 2010) and New Zealand (Spronken-Smith 2010) perspectives on the use of inquiry learning as an effective pedagogical approach to enhancing the research-teaching nexus.


There are a number of opportunities for students in Canada to engage in research although many of them--such as research awards, publishing opportunities, and formal conference presentations--are limited to elite students. A larger number of undergraduates do have the

opportunity to engage in research as part of their undergraduate thesis, although this typically occurs during their final year of study. Additional experiential-learning opportunities, including co-ops, internships, and sponsored work programs, exist in Canada and provide students the opportunity to engage in research. While evidence shows that inquiry learning could engage many more students early in their academic careers, numerous barriers to this expansion exist. In the McMaster case, two of the three original Faculties providing stand-alone, first-year inquiry courses no longer do so, although inquiry learning continues to exist in these Faculties as part of other courses. The third, the Social Sciences Faculty, remains committed to inquiry teaching and learning within both existing courses and a stand-alone, first-year course.


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Vajoczki, Susan, S. Watt, S, M.M. Vine, and Lia, Xueqing (in preparation). Inquiry Learning: Level, discipline, class size, what matters?

Vajoczki, Susan, S. Watt, and M.M. Vine, M.M. (in preparation). Inquiry Learning: Instructor Perspectives.

Susan Vajoczki

Director, Centre for Leadership in Learning

School of Geography & Earth Sciences

McMaster University

Hamilton, ON Canada

Susan Vajoczki is an associate professor in the School of Geography and Earth Sciences and director of the Centre for Leadership in Learning at McMaster University. She taught large and small classes, including residential field courses in environmental sciences and physical geography, for many years prior to moving into educational development. She spent four years as the director of Experiential Education in McMaster's Faculty of Social Sciences. Her current primary areas of interest include examining academic identities related to teaching and learning, the role of technology as an effective tool to enhance learning, the role of inquiry in student success, and the professional-development needs of faculty. She continues to teach one class of inquiry in the Faculty of Social Sciences each academic year.
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Author:Vajoczki, Susan
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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